If Sheam Satkuru-Granzella, director of the Malaysian Timber Council in London, had followed her original career plan she would now be in a wig and gown defending criminals.

It was her intention, right up to completing her law degree at King’s College in London, to be a criminal lawyer, but a seemingly un-lawyer like impulse stopped her: compassion.

“I’m too trusting by nature but then I’d look at the facts and think, could I defend them in court knowing that they might actually have done it?” said Sheam.

Instead, she switched to the “less personal” areas of commercial, corporate and international trade law and for two years worked as a barrister for two firms of solicitors.

The move to the Malaysian Timber Council (MTC) came in 1995 when she was looking for a job with more settled hours.

“Doing barrister’s cases means you often work through the night and then have cases in the morning,” she said.

The MTC vacancy for an executive was perfect for a Malaysian-born lawyer.

“They needed someone who was interested in policy and international trade law,” said Sheam. “I had the expertise and I thought working for a Malaysian organisation would help me to take my country’s interests forward.”

It was also a position where she could use the traits of compassion and tolerance developed from her upbringing, more freely.

Early influences

Sheam was born in Malaysia, six years after the country’s independence from Britain, as it was developing its identity as a nation state. Her father, a senior civil servant in the Department of Labour and also a British graduate, was a third generation Malaysian, while her Sri Lankan-born mother, who still lives in Malaysia, was an English teacher.

Sheam’s father’s job meant the family moved around the country, which had a “huge influence” on Sheam and her sister.

“The exposure to the country was wonderful,” said Sheam. “We lived in small towns and cities and had daily contact with local communities. It wasn’t the privileged background you might imagine but it was privileged in a different way – the privilege of meeting people from all walks of life, races and religions.”

After leaving school, Sheam, an accomplished pianist, taught piano for two years, but law has always been her true calling.

“I made up my mind from an early age that I wanted to go to law school because of my natural ability to discern fact from fiction,” she said.

And since joining the MTC and being appointed director in 2007, Sheam has used her legal skills and natural sense of justice to argue the case for Malaysian timber’s sustainability and legality.

Critical time

She joined the MTC at a critical time: Malaysia was growing and developing and some European countries were proposing a ban on tropical timber imports.

“It was clear that if international trade in timber was lost then we would lose our forests to other economic uses because the country and population were growing at a tremendous pace and land use was becoming critical,” said Sheam.

At the same time Malaysia was trying to establish markets for its timber in Europe.

“We were here to make friends and build relationships. That was stimulating because we had to travel to key markets and learn about their culture, the way they think and do things,” she said.

It was a steep learning curve but a challenge that Sheam embraced with characteristic enthusiasm.

“Because my father worked for the Ministry of Labour we had exposure to sawmills, employees’ issues and communities’ rights, but I knew nothing about forestry except an appreciation of the beauty of forests.

“I still don’t know everything about forestry but I work on the philosophy that you learn something new every day. The day one thinks one knows everything is the day that arrogance is at its hilt.”

Legal expertise

Sheam had intended to stay with the MTC for only five years, using it as a stepping stone to working in international trade law. But although law would be a more lucrative option, Sheam wouldn’t change anything.

“The challenges have been so stimulating that I’ve stayed on, and the issues have evolved and become far more sophisticated. In the last 10 years my legal qualifications have become more useful, helping in the legal analysis of issues and providing the confidence to articulate the arguments in an international forum,” she said.

Changing policies place continual demands on tropical timber producers and Malaysia is often singled out, which is a frustration for Sheam.

“I wonder if it’s because we don’t take things lying down. We’re always quick to respond and because we’re on the front line we seem to be one of the easy targets,” she said.

“I would like to see some of our critics being more reasonable, and awarding us the merit we deserve for the progress that we’ve achieved.

“People still think that the social criteria and forest conversion are two issues that developing countries are susceptible to. We’ve done our level best to explain that land use in Malaysia is heavily regulated and that we still have 56% of our natural forest cover. The statistics speak for themselves.”

She points out that Malaysian legislation covers the rights of indigenous communities and, under the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS), their user rights in certified forest areas are protected.

Proud achievements

The frustrations aside, Sheam is proud of the achievements of the past 10 years or so – the establishment of the MTCS; the realisation by importing countries that banning tropical timber was not in the interests of sustainable forest management; and the development of partnerships across Europe, including with fellow trade associations.

With further challenges to meet, such as the ongoing issue of indigenous peoples’ rights, the negotiation of Malaysia’s Voluntary Partnership Agreement under FLEGT, the forthcoming EU Timber Regulation, and wider uptake of the MTCS, Sheam has no plans to leave the MTC.

She does, however, make time away from work to spend with her two sons, Enzo and Julio, and her Italian husband Lucca.

The family travels to Malaysia every year to visit Sheam’s mother, who lives 80 miles east of Kuala Lumpur, close to the country’s largest national park, and to Italy to see Lucca’s family.

It’s an upbringing that gives Sheam’s sons the appreciation of different cultures that her own background provided.

“They love London and love growing up here,” she said. “They’re city born and bred but they love Malaysian forests and Italian mountains; they love the outdoor life.”